24 - Optional Interview with Dr. Norman Fortenberry

دوره: Coursera – Learning How to Learn / درس 24

Coursera – Learning How to Learn

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24 - Optional Interview with Dr. Norman Fortenberry

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For this interview, it’s a pleasure to


you to one of today’s leading figures in


how to learn more effectively, Dr. Norman

Fortenberry, the

executive director of the American Society

of Engineering Education.

Dr. Fortenberry is MIT cubed.

That is, he has his bachelors, masters,

and doctorate

in mechanical engineering from the

Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Because of his interest in learning,

Norman took an unusual career path.

After teaching his first engineering


he realized that there was the disconnect.

He knew a great deal about his research


but he didn’t know about how to teach


The reality is, that most new professors

arrive at

their universities without any training in

how to teach effectively.

Dr. Fortenberry wanted to do something

about this problem.

His work at the National Science

Foundation and the National

Consortium for Graduate Degrees for

Minorities in Engineering and Science have

helped create a whole network of support

for faculty in science,

engineering, math, and technology who want

to help students learn effectively.

In this interview, we’ll get some

practical ideas from Dr.

Fortenberry on how you can most

effectively approach your studies.

Thank you so much for being here, Dr.


I’m just so impressed.

I have to ask you.

Here you are.

You landed at MIT, which is one of the

top educational institutions, at least

technologically-speaking, in the world.

And you successfully climbed your way up


ladder all the way through to get your


Let’s cut past the generalities and get to


What were some of the most, most

worthwhile tricks and approaches

that you used to help you study and learn

most effectively?

Well, MIT is, is a very good

institution and not just technologically.

For example, it has one of the

top political science departments in the


But, that said, the techniques that, that

I pursued, the first and foremost

was to recognize that what worked in high

school will not work in college.

In high school, you’re taught to, well

actually, most of Pre-K,

you’re taught you’re to do your own work,

study alone, etc.

That is deadly.

In college, at least in engineering

schools, the

expectation is that you’re part of a


The expectation is that there are course


and course bibles that are all over


There’s an expectation that you have

access to resources that

if you don’t have access to, you’re in

deep trouble.

So you have to make sure that you live up

to that expectation by

making the connections to the people who

have the resources that you need to


The key lesson in, in collegiate study, at


in engineering school, is you are part of

a team.

And if you don’t have a team, you find a


If you are a team, you maximize the team.

But you have to be part of the group.

Engineering is a team sport.

You know, all the, all the stereotypes

are about the lone engineer, the lone


But it’s a team sport.

And you have to find your team as quickly

as possible and make sure

that the members of that team are very

serious about their studies as well.


Your competition at MIT included some of

the top students in the world.

How did your, you approach your studies so

that you could

find things in a way to keep yourself from

being intimidated.

I was intimidated.

I was extremely intimidated.

What it took was reminding myself and


others remind me, my peers, some of the

administrators, to remind me that I didn’t


become less smart once I got to MIT.

There were some extremely bright people,

but I was one of those bright people.

And that I needed to build a community of

support around me.

I gave support.

I received support.

So yes, you are entirely intimidated.

At least I was, and people I knew were.

But we knew that if we worked together as

a team, we would make it through.

And so, that was they key was to remember

the objective is to learn the material.

The objective is to finish the class.

Even in grad school, the objective is to

get the degree.

And you keep your eye focused on the


and you fight it out, and you get through.

Early on in your college career, you

took a more advanced calculus course-


That most people don’t usually take, at

least at that stage.

I understand this set you back in your


Yes it did.

How could you have avoided this

scenario, and how did

you keep going in the face of facing

failure and, and hardship?

Well the, the way to avoid the problem


to, is to, so this is all about balancing


I should have done what the overwhelming


of students did, which was take the


track calculus and not take the Calculus


Applications, which everybody said was the

hard track.

But I said, but it has application, so if


going to be an engineer that makes sense

for me to do.

There are times when there’s wisdom in the

wisdom of the crowd.

There are times when being lemming is not

the brightest thing in the world to do.

The challenge is figuring out which is


But I think I could have informed my

decision by not only

talking to my peers, but talking to some

grad students and some

administrators, you know, counseling

deans, et cetera, about that choice and my

background in calculus, which was not

strong because I hadn’t taken calculus


I was handed an AP book and that was,

that was my calculus class senior year in


so, so the, the thing is to recognize when

one is making

a reasonable choice and when one is not

making a reasonable choice.

Now, how did I persist?

I buckled down and studied very hard,

again with the study groups.

And I spent a lot of extra time going over


two and three different ways to make sure

that I understood it.

Okay, so what do you do to help prompt,

sort of, what we call

diffuse mode or neural resting states, the


perspectives you get from those kinds of


In your, your research, in your work, how

do you, how do you prompt those?

Well I think it’s very important, the

point that you make.

One of the stories that I tell people is


you know, it’s okay to keep your nose to

the grindstone.

There are plenty of people, at that point,


about MIT, plenty of people walking around

with no noses.

But if you keep your nose to the

grindstone too long, you begin to cut into


And since brain is what you’re trying to

use, that’s counterproductive.

So it is important to take a break.

My breaks involve total mental turn-off.

I wa, I read cartoons in the, in the

newspaper or watch cartoons on television.

I watch some of the, now, I watch some of

the silliest, most inane,

television shows, as a form, without

naming any names, as a form of relaxation.

That allows me to turn off my conscious

brain, your unconscious work.

It’s a lot like taking a nap.

You know, there’s so many things coming at

you and pushing on you, that you have to

redirect your focus in order for your

brain to

work on background and come up with the


So, so, I do things.

Some people exercise.

I used to exercise more.

I need to exercise more.

But I do things that shut my brain down in

different ways.

Well, we share a little, my guilty


is, I, I love to read the National



That would work, too.

Many of our viewers have brothers and


and friends who are trying to learn new


So, reflecting back on your own childhood,

and even your

work today, how have other people helped

you in your learning?

And, did, did people sometimes help you,

perhaps, by not helping you?

And, do you have any practical suggestions

for our

viewers, who are trying to learn how to


There’s very practical guidance on

learning how to learn in, in any number

of publications and online in, in terms

of a, a systematic process for acquiring


Some things I used with my son when he was

younger, in

terms of using as many different modes of

input as you can.

See something.

Write it out by hand so that you’ve

got the muscle memory, repeating it back

to yourself.

See it, say it, spell it, whatever.

As many input modes, you’ve got your

auditory learners, your visual learners.

You, you saturate yourself with learning


That’s one of the reasons why people need

to be careful when you have a

faculty member or a teacher to put


on, on overheads or, or Powerpoints these


And you just take their overheads and

don’t really study them.

The, the mechanical act of writing helps

you to internalize that material, as

well as going back over the notes again,

helps you to internalize that material.

So, multi-mode input is critical for


again, with the study groups and

challenging each other, because

what you, what you think you know, you

find out

when you try to explain it to somebody

else, that’s

why teaching is one of the best ways to


But even if you don’t go full blown to

tutoring somebody else, just in discussing

it with a set of peers and colleagues,

okay, this is what I think I know.

And they challenge you.

Okay, well that’s not what I thought I

thought, but let me explain.

And they will either, you will either

validate what you thought,

or you will find a, the fallacy in what

you thought.

And they do the same thing.

And so you help each other by explaining

material to each other.

If you just write it out, yeah I’ve got


Well, you may not have it, or you may have

it wrong.

And so you have to take the time to

explain it, teach it, whatever, to

somebody else as a

way to make sure that you, in fact, have

what you think you have in terms of your


I think active learning like this,


grappling with it and using information

that’s within

your own mind, that’s the best way to know

you’ve really got it within your own mind.


So, you’re exactly right.

Norman, thank you so much.


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